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Perth, Australia - The search zone for the Malaysia airliner that crashed in the Indian Ocean nearly three weeks ago has shifted 680 miles to the northeast of where planes and ships had been looking for possible debris because of a "new credible lead," Australia said today.
The revised search area comes as the weather cleared enough today to allow planes to hunt for fresh clues to the fate of the plane carrying 239 people that went missing March 8.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority said the change came after updated the new information is based on continuing analysis of radar data between the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca before radar contact was lost with the Boeing 777.
It said the analysis indicated the aircraft was traveling faster than previously estimated, resulting in increased fuel use and reducing the possible distance the aircraft could have flown into the Indian Ocean.
The new area is 123,000 square miles and about 1,250 miles west of Perth, Australia, the launching area for the search. The previous search area was more southwest and about 1,550 miles from Perth.
"This is a credible new lead and will be thoroughly investigated today," Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said today.
"This is an extraordinarily difficult search, and an agonizing wait for family and friends of the passengers and crew," he said. "We owe it to them to follow every credible lead and to keep the public informed of significant new developments. That is what we are doing."
The U.S. Navy dispatched more equipment to Australia this week. If plane debris is found and drift calculations sharply narrow the search area to a few dozen miles, the additional equipment can be put to use.
The additional equipment includes a device that can be towed underwater to listen for a "ping" from the plane's black box and an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) akin to an unmanned submarine.
The towed ping locator (TPL) is mounted on a sled on a long tether that limits the towing ship's speed to about 3 mph. The AUV - a Bluefin 21 - can move slightly faster. Three AUVs were used to search a 40-square-mile area of the Atlantic where the Air France airliner went down. That search took several months.
"Those TPLs on paper are fantastic," said Dave Gallo, who searched the ocean bottom for the black box, or flight recorder, of an Air France flight that went down in the southern Atlantic in 2009. "In practice, if the conditions are right and you have skilled operators, they can be powerful. (However,) the ocean can do a lot of things with sound. For instance, if you know how to use thermal layers in the ocean, you can hide a nuclear submarine from some of the most powerful sonar."
The Washington Post contributed to this report.